New London - Two years ago, when city councilors agreed to sell a former elementary school to a developer, they saw dollar signs.
The four-acre Edgerton School property would be owned privately and become taxable. Peter Levine, who has several successful real estate projects in the city, proposed demolishing the school and building 90 apartments and a 5,000-square-foot commercial building. The council bypassed two other proposals and agreed to sell the land to Levine for $325,000, expecting the value to increase dramatically when the project was completed.
Now, more than two years later, with the real estate market practically nonexistent and neighbors opposed to low-income housing, the project is teetering.
Earlier this year, Levine submitted a new agreement to the city that would eliminate the residential side of the project. Residents, meanwhile, who have suggested the land be used for a community center or some other municipal use, are opposed to the changes, and the City Council has yet to act on the request.
As negotiations drag on, the empty building has also become a magnet for vandals, according to neighbors, and is deteriorating. Levine has put up a fence, but the building is falling further into disrepair.
Levine now wants to reuse the 19,000-square-foot school building for commercial and institutional uses. He's agreed to pay taxes on the property, based on an assessment of $227,000 for two years, and then pay taxes based on an assessment of $700,000, even if the project isn't built.
Some councilors are questioning the sales price, claiming the city is practically giving away a valuable piece of property. Others are open to the neighbors' suggestion that the city keep the property off the tax rolls and open up a community center there.
"I believe it's a perfect spot for a community center,'' said Councilor Michael Buscetto III. He also suggested the property could accommodate a police substation and a new senior center.
"It doesn't have to be the Taj Mahal, just something we're proud of,'' he said.
Councilor John Maynard doesn't think the city should sell the property for $325,000, especially since it is valued at $1 million.
And while not in favor of keeping the building off the tax rolls, Councilor Rob Pero is hesitant to approve the proposed changes that would move the project forward.
"We awarded him the property based on the original project,'' Pero said. "Now he's doing a totally different project."
Those changes have upset neighbors, who worry about what will eventually end up in their backyard.
"We don't know what he wants to put there,'' said Marie Friess-McSparran, who owns an abutting property on Elm Street. "The neighborhood is concerned.''
Friess-McSparran and her husband, Dan McSparran, have rallied residents along Elm Street, Cedar Grove Avenue and other surrounding streets to stop the development and try to get the city to consider a community center and police substation in the old school. They say Levine is unfairly getting the equivalent of an 80 percent tax break for two years.
"Neighbors haven't had a chance to voice their opinion,'' said Friess-McSparran.
They presented the council with a petition last week, signed by more than 170 residents, asking the city not to sell the property. They are fearful that if the land is rezoned for institutional uses, they could have something like an alternative incarceration program in their backyards.
On Monday, Levine referred questions to his attorney, Anthony Basilica of New London, who could not be reached for comment. Basilica, who has been representing Levine for about 10 months, appeared before the council last week and tried unsuccessfully to get action on the amended agreement. He said Levine was not seeking to put any sort of incarceration program in the building.
Levine, whose business, Amber Properties, is based in White Plains, N.Y., has completed several projects in the city. He converted the former SNET building at 73 Washington St. into 28 apartments, and developed the dilapidated United Electric building at 13 Washington St. into 13 loft apartments and attached retail space. It houses the Bean and Leaf coffee shop, Treehugger Organic Salon and Two Wives Pizza. He also owns an office building at 194 Howard St.
The McSparrans said their opposition has nothing to do with Levine and everything to do with the needs and concerns of their neighbors. They said those who are in favor of the project would not be so quick to approve it if it was in their backyard.
"People in the neighborhood don't want it,'' said Dan McSparran. "The City Council has to look at that at some time.''